The global celebration over the successful rescue of the Chilean miners masks many of the underlying problems of the Chilean economy.
For all its pretensions of being a developed country, the nation is still woefully dependent on extraction of natural resources, especially copper mining. In fact, this dependence has deepened in the past few years.
This is an affliction that it shares with its neighbors in the region. Latin America has been historically cursed with a reliance on the export of primary products. And, astonishingly, this has recently intensified, with raw materials increasing in their share of Latin American exports from 27 percent to 39 percent over the past decade. Apparently, China’s insatiable demand is at least partly to blame.
What this dependence does to Latin America is to condemn it to an underdeveloped status, making the economies especially vulnerable to swings in global demand. It also precludes these countries from moving up the ladder to the manufacture of high-end products. Scholars in the field of political economy who pioneered such a thesis—named the dependencia (dependency) theory—were, not surprisingly, focused on Latin America. Now, even as their thinking is derided in current-day academia for being passé, their ideas are being proven correct. A reliance on the export of natural resources also exposes members of the workforce to a life of danger. Chile is no exception. “The joy over the near-epic rescue that has been the result of the strength and wisdom of the miners of Atacama makes it necessary for us not to forget that situations like this one are absolutely avoidable,” says Chilean academic Maria Ester Feres, adding that the country’s negligence of safety in key sectors such as mining and agribusiness shows how little value it places on its workers. Recently elected conservative president Sebastian Pinera is making many of the right noises about revamping workplace conditions and breaking the country free of its reliance on primary products. But it’s doubtful if his business-oriented approach will do much on either front. "This country has to understand that changes must be made," said Mario Sepulveda, the second Chilean miner from the rescued group to emerge aboveground. His countrymen need to heed his words.
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